- Casey Bradley Gent
- Norris-Penrose Event Center also includes horse stables.
Beneath the rodeo arena, horse stalls and parking lots at the Norris-Penrose Event Center lies evidence of the region's industrial legacy dating back more than 100 years.
According to historical accounts contained in public records and environmental studies, the grounds were purchased in the late 19th century by Colorado Springs' utility department to obtain water rights in the Bear Creek Valley in that vicinity.
From 1900 to 1929, the Golden Cycle Mill processed gold ore shipped down from the Cripple Creek mining district west of Pikes Peak, dumping millions of tons of toxic tailings on the ground.
After that, the Portland Gold Mining Co. leased the property to reprocess those tailings using a method that relied on cyanide and mercury, both toxic materials. The recycling operation closed after several years and Portland capped the land with a layer of clay.
In the 1940s and 1950s, trash was landfilled there, including debris from an old Antlers Hotel. After the landfill closed, the site evolved into lush pastures laced with trails that lured horseback riders.
Annexed into the city in 1959 and 1960, the land was deeded by the utility department to the city in 1973. The city then inked a 30-year lease with the Colorado Springs Rodeo Association, founded in 1967, which runs the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo at the Norris-Penrose property.
After the rodeo arena was moved from The Broadmoor in 1973, the county assumed the lease in 1975. Thereafter, the county erected stables, barns, the indoor arena, concession buildings for the outdoor and indoor arenas, paddocks, riding rings, corrals and pens.
In the late 1990s, the county ordered environmental studies as it considered acquiring the property from the city.
A 1997 study concluded "adverse environmental conditions may exist" at the site, including mine tailings beneath the entire property. Due to a lack of drainage controls to filter runoff into Bear Creek, the report suggested monitoring wells be installed near the creek and additional testing be conducted across the facility. There's no mention in environmental reports spanning nearly 20 years whether monitoring wells were drilled.
A 1998 assessment reported bore samples pulled from the ground found arsenic, barium, chromium, lead, mercury and cyanide at levels far above regulatory limits. But the EPA termed the tailings "not of a sufficient risk to the public to warrant listing on the National Priority List," a designation that can lead to Superfund cleanup efforts.
The city conveyed the land to the county in 1999 at no cost.
The deal required the county to relinquish all water rights to the city and accept liability for the site's contamination. The agreement also required the county to assure the property "shall be owned and used in perpetuity as open space, recreational and equestrian activities only and for no other purpose."
In 2002, the county pursued a Voluntary Cleanup Program grant but later withdrew it when the need arose for county matching funds, county Community Services Department Environmental Division manager Kathy Andrew says in an email.
By the mid-2000s, the county could no longer afford to subsidize the property and agreed to sell it to the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo Foundation in 2005 for $10. The county retained a first right of refusal so it could reclaim the property if necessary. (That right could be lifted this year by county commissioners.)
The sales agreement called for the county to assume responsibility for the underlying contamination, except in cases where the Rodeo Foundation's improvements disrupted the soils in ways that required mitigation.
The foundation spent $2 million improving the property, including adding an elaborate two-story façade to the arena and an upper-deck viewing and dining room. The money came from long-time rodeo supporter and board member Robert Norris. But more was needed, so Norris loaned another $1 million. As a nod to his support, the property was renamed Norris-Penrose Event Center.
By 2014, the foundation was entertaining an offer. Negotiations apparently took place with The Broadmoor, which had been scouting for horse properties.
A new round of environmental reports again cited elevated levels of metals in soils and groundwater, and noted its landfill history. Consultants interviewed Johnny Walker, the event center's manager at the time. "He informed us we might find landfill trash a few inches below the surface of the main arena," the report said. "In the past, his crew has unearthed trash material from below the main arena during surface grading before and after events." The landfill, the study noted, posed potential problems due to possible presence of asbestos and other "highly regulated" waste debris, such as methane gas.
The study also recommended the owner enroll in a Voluntary Cleanup Program with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The CDPHE tells the Indy the site is ineligible for the program, because it's a designated site under a different federal program called Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Information System, which simply means more investigation might be necessary.
Also in 2014, conflict arose over non-payment of the Norris loan, prompting Norris to sue the foundation that May.
By late summer, The Broadmoor cut off negotiations to buy the property. (The next year, the resort proposed to build a stable immediately west of the Norris-Penrose property but withdrew the plan in the face of citizen opposition, saying a survey showed the stable didn't offer an "authentic" experience. Last year, the resort traded several parcels to the city to obtain city open space in North Cheyenne Cañon, known as Strawberry Fields, for a stable and picnic pavilion. The original 9-acre stable property considered by The Broadmoor was part of that trade.)
Today, rodeo foundation board member Gary Markle downplays the pollution, saying the county, not the foundation, has assumed responsibility, noting, "That was all understood when title was transferred."
He also emphasizes there's been no business lost because of the contamination, as far as he knows.
As for the Norris loan, the foundation, which initially argued the money was a donation, has acknowledged it owes the money, and the lawsuit was dismissed in February 2015. "We have an arrangement to pay it off," Markle says.
Most recently, the foundation has changed its mind about selling the event center and plans to pump another $4 million into the property.